Super Search

The Denver school board is aiming to name superintendent finalists by October

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg sits in a meeting with board members in 2017.

The Denver school board agreed Monday on a tight timeline for finding a new superintendent, leaving some parents, students, and advocates to wonder whether there will be enough time to do the deep community engagement the board has promised.

“They’re saying a lot about being transparent, and they’re making it sound like a group decision, so I want to see where we come into the process,” said student Maya Contreras, a rising junior at Denver’s South High School.

The ultimate decision lies with the seven-member Denver school board, and Contreras was in the audience Monday when the board passed a resolution laying out the timeline. It says the deadline for superintendent candidates to submit an application will be Sept. 14, and the board will name the finalist or finalists by Oct. 15, less than three months from now.

Outgoing Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced this month that he’s stepping down after nearly 10 years leading the district.

Board member Happy Haynes said the timeline is meant to maintain stability in a district that has “got a lot of good things happening” and attract top candidates who may not stay interested in the job if the search drags on for many months.

“The longer you have uncertainty about the leadership, it creates anxiety,” Haynes said.

But parent Brandon Pryor said the short time window makes it appear that board members “already have their minds made up,” and the search process is just for show.

The resolution says the board will conduct a nationwide search with the help of a third-party consultant who has yet to be hired. The search will be open to both internal and external candidates, it says. Board member Lisa Flores said it’s likely the best candidates already have jobs elsewhere, “and we might be in a position of stealing someone away.”

Most importantly to many of the parents and students who came to watch the board meeting, the resolution says the board “will seek out community input on the experiences, qualities, and qualifications that the next superintendent should have.”

Before the meeting, a group of community members dissatisfied with the district, who believe its policies are poorly serving students of color and those from low-income families, gathered across the street from Denver Public Schools’ downtown headquarters to offer such advice. (Read the group’s letter below.)

They want the next superintendent to be an educator who lives in the city – and if he or she has children, to send those children to Denver’s public schools.

Boasberg was once a public school teacher in Hong Kong, but he came to the district in 2007 from a job as a senior executive at a telecommunications company. He lives with his wife and three children in Boulder.

The group, called Our Voice, Our Schools, said the next superintendent should remove police officers from schools and put a licensed teacher in every classroom, a dig at programs like Teach for America that recruit college graduates to teach full-time while earning a license.

The next leader should be “a transformer, not a reformer,” group members said, referring to school improvement strategies deployed during Boasberg’s tenure, including closing or replacing struggling schools.

Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova, a Denver Public Schools graduate and former teacher who is widely seen as a leading contender for the job, would not be an acceptable choice because of her support for such strategies, they said.

Another community group, called Our Denver, Our Schools, released a similar list last week. (Read it below, as well.) It included that the next superintendent should speak Spanish, the most common language other than English spoken by the families of Denver students, 55 percent of whom are Latino.

It also said the superintendent should want to “phase out choice by assuring every neighborhood school is an excellent one.” Denver’s nationally recognized school choice system allows families to use a single form to request to attend any school in the city. State law requires districts to offer school choice, and Denver’s process makes it significantly easier for families to participate. But critics see it as fueling the growth of independent charter schools, among other things.

Even groups less hostile toward the district have called for the superintendent search process to include robust opportunities for the public to weigh in. Board members on Monday articulated a high-level plan for doing so that does not yet include details or meeting dates. They said their aim is to balance a desire to hear from as many community groups as possible with the fact that it is ultimately the board’s responsibility to hire the superintendent.

“It’s our duty to listen to you,” said board member Carrie Olson, a former teacher who was elected last year on a platform that included improving how the district engages with the community. “Not listen to you in a superficial way, but in a deep way.”

Student Jhoni Palmer was also in the audience Monday. A rising junior at East High School, she serves with Contreras on the district’s student board of education, an advocacy and leadership group. Palmer said she’d like the next superintendent to be a woman of color because the district has long been run by men and because the new leader should reflect the students, most of whom are students of color.

Contreras added that the superintendent should have attended public school themselves, and Palmer said that she’d like a local candidate “who knows how DPS runs.”

Most of all, the teenagers said students should be involved and consulted every step of the way. The adults may be in charge, Contreras said, but “they’re not the people in school.”

“We catch the repercussions of their actions,” Palmer said.

election 2019

College student, former candidate jumps into Denver school board race – early

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Tay Anderson speaks to students at Denver's South High School in May 2017.

A Denver college student who as a teenager last year unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the district’s school board announced Wednesday that he plans to try again in 2019.

Tay Anderson, 20, said he will run next November for the board seat currently occupied by Happy Haynes. Haynes, a longtime Denver politician who is executive director of the city’s parks and recreation department, does not represent a particular region of the school district. Rather, she is one of two at-large members on the board. Haynes was first elected to the school board in 2011 and is barred by term limits from running again.

Haynes supports the direction of Denver Public Schools and some of its more aggressive improvement strategies, such as closing low-performing schools. Anderson does not.

He is the first candidate to declare he’s running for the Denver school board in 2019. Haynes’ seat is one of three seats that will be open in 2019. There is no school board election this year.

In 2017, Anderson ran in a heated three-way race for a different board seat representing northeast Denver. Former teacher Jennifer Bacon won that seat with 42 percent of the vote.

Anderson, a vocal critic of the district, campaigned on platform of change. He called for the district to improve what he described as weak community engagement efforts and to stop approving new charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Bacon also questioned some of the district’s policies. The Denver teachers union endorsed her over Anderson, who raised the least amount of money of the three candidates. Bacon was one of two new board members elected in 2017 who represent a more critical perspective. The 2019 election is likely to involve many of the same debates over education reform.

Anderson is a graduate of Denver’s Manual High School. He is now a student at Metropolitan State University, where he is studying education. He said he also works at Hinkley High School in neighboring Aurora, helping with the school’s restorative justice program, a method of student discipline that focuses on repairing harm rather than doling out punishment.

Anderson posted his campaign announcement on Facebook. It says, in part:

After a lot of thought, prayer, and seeking guidance from mentors, I decided this is the path I need to pursue to fulfill my commitment to the students, teachers, and community of Denver. I learned many valuable lessons during my campaign in 2017 and I know that I need to prepare and ensure that I have the adequate time to be in every part of Denver to connect with as many voters as possible, which is why I am getting to work now!

My dedication to Denver Public Schools has always been deeply personal and this campaign is reflective of that. As I gear up for another campaign, I am once again driven and motivated by my grandmother, who was an educator for over 35 years. Her tenacity to never give up is what drives my passion for the students in Denver Public Schools. I am determined to follow in her footsteps. I have organized students around school safety and more importantly impacted students’ lives in Denver Public Schools and Aurora Public Schools. These students have a voice and I am prepared to fight for their agency in their education.

more back-and-forth

Eighteen legislators show support for TNReady pause as 11 superintendents say press on

Tennessee lawmakers listen to Gov. Bill Haslam deliver his 2016 State of the State address at the State Capitol in Nashville.

School leaders and now state lawmakers continue to pick sides in a growing debate over whether or not Tennessee should pause state testing for students.

Eighteen state legislators sent the superintendents of Nashville and Memphis a letter on Tuesday supporting a request for an indefinite pause of the state’s embattled test, TNReady.

“As members of the Tennessee General Assembly responsible for helping set policies and appropriate taxpayer funds for public education, we have been dismayed at the failed implementation of and wasted resources associated with a testing system that is universally considered — by any set of objective measures – to be a colossal failure,” said the letter, signed by legislators from Davidson and Shelby counties, where Nashville and Memphis are located.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Democrat from Nashville, spearheaded the letter. Representatives Johnnie Turner, G.A. Hardaway, Barbara Cooper, Antonio Parkinson and Sen. Sara Kyle were among the signers representing Memphis.

Clemmons told Chalkbeat that he believes Tennessee should have a state test, but that it shouldn’t be TNReady.

“We are showing support for leaders who are representing students and teachers who are incredibly frustrated with a failing system,” Clemmons said. “We have to come up with a system that is reliable and fair.”

The lawmakers’ statement comes a day after Education Commissioner Candice McQueen responded to the Nashville and Memphis school leaders in a strongly worded letter, where she said that a pause on state testing would be “both illegal and inconsistent with our values as a state.”

The growing divide over a pause in TNReady testing further elevates it as an issue in the governor’s race, which will be decided on Nov. 6. Democratic nominee Karl Dean, who is the former mayor of Nashville, and Republican nominee Bill Lee, a businessman from Williamson County, have both said their respective administrations would review the state’s troubled testing program.

“We are hopeful that the next governor will appoint a new Commissioner of Education and immediately embark on a collaborative effort with local school districts to scrap the failed TNready system,” the 18 state lawmakers said in their statement.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Shawn Joseph launched the back-and-forth with an Aug. 3 letter they said was sent to outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam and McQueen declaring “no confidence” in the troubled state test. McQueen’s office said Tuesday that neither her office nor the governor’s office had yet received the letter.

However, a spokeswoman for Nashville public schools told Chalkbeat on Monday that the Aug. 3 letter was sent to Assistant Commissioner Elizabeth Fiveash, who reports to McQueen. While some legislators backed the two superintendents, 11 district leaders from around the state released an email statement on Tuesday supporting state testing. Superintendents from Maryville, Alcoa, Sevier, Johnson, Dyersburg, Loudon, Clinton, Marshall, McKenzie, Trousdale, and Lenoir signed the statement, which they said was also sent to McQueen.

“Test items and question types are directly linked to the standards and are pushing students to deeper critical thinking,” the email said. “The comprehensive accountability model holds schools and districts accountable for improved student performance…. Challenges remain, but together we must be positive as we continue the work.”

The state has struggled to administer TNReady cleanly since its failed online rollout in 2016, prompting McQueen to cancel most testing that year and fire its testing company. Except for scattered scoring problems, the next year went better under new vendor Questar and mostly paper-and-pencil testing materials.

But this spring, the return to computerized exams for older students was fraught with disruptions and spurred the Legislature to order that the results not be used against students or teachers.

For the upcoming school year, the state has hired an additional testing company, and McQueen has slowed the switch to computerized exams. The state Department of Education has recruited 37 teachers and testing coordinators to become TNReady ambassadors, tasked with offering on-the-ground feedback and advice to the state and its vendors to improve the testing experience.

Read both the state lawmakers’ letter and the superintendents’ statement below:

Signers are: John Ray Clemmons, Bo Mitchell, Sherry Jones, Dwayne Thompson, Brenda Gilmore, Darren Jernigan, Antonio Parkinson, Jason Powell, Bill Beck, Mike Stewart, Barbara Ward Cooper, Larry Miller, G.A. Hardaway,  Karen D. Camper, Harold Love,  Johnnie Turner, Sara Kyle, and Joe Towns.

August 14, 2018
District leaders across Tennessee understand and validate the disappointment and frustration our teachers, students, and parents felt with the glitches and errors faced during the spring’s administration of the TNReady student assessment. It was unacceptable. However, it is important that we, as leaders, step up to say that now is the time to press on and continue the important work of improving the overall education for all Tennessee students.  
We are optimistic about where we are heading in education – ultimately more students will graduate prepared for the next steps in their lives. The foundation is solid with (1) rigorous standards, (2) aligned assessments, and (3) an accountability model that focuses on student achievement and growth.  We are now expecting as much or more out of our students as any state in the nation. Test items and question types are directly linked to the standards and are pushing students to deeper critical thinking. The comprehensive accountability model holds schools and districts accountable for improved student performance across all subgroups.  Challenges remain, but together we must be positive as we continue the work.
Our students have made strong and steady gains in achievement and growth over the past few years, earning recognition at a national level. Our students now have the opportunity to be more fully prepared and competitive to enter college and the workforce. This is not the time to press the pause button. Even with the improvements in student performance, there is much work to do. Achievement gaps for subgroups are too large and not enough students are graduating “Ready” for the next step.
We must hold the course on rigorous standards, aligned assessments, and an accountability system focused on student achievement and growth. We, the directors of Tennessee schools, believe this rigor and accountability will impact all students. We embrace the priorities outlined in Tennessee Succeeds with a focus on foundational literacy and pathways to postsecondary success. Tennessee students have already demonstrated a determination to reach the mastery of rigorous state standards and will rise to the newly established expectations. We have work to do, and we should keep the focus on instruction and closing the gaps to ensure every student in Tennessee is ready for their future. We want to send a message of confidence and determination, a relentless ambition to reach our goals. We must step up and hold the line. We cannot expect anything less than excellence. Our students deserve it. 
Mike Winstead, Maryville City Schools
Brian Bell, Alcoa City Schools
Jack Parton, Sevier County Schools
Steve Barnett, Johnson City Schools
Neel Durbin, Dyersburg City Schools
Jason Vance, Loudon County Schools
Kelly Johnson, Clinton City Schools
Jacob Sorrells, Marshall County Schools
Lynn Watkins, McKenzie Special School District
Clint Satterfield, Trousdale County Schools
Jeanne Barker, Lenoir City Schools